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On “Coming Down From Alison,” the opening track from singer songwriter Johnish’s latest, Canned Nebraska Sea Salt, he mentions “the ecstasy you no longer feel when the other person’s gone” but there’s no missing pleasures here. Since the departure of his longtime songwriting partner Gwinivere, Johnish has released two wonderful albums and opened up a Vagan restaurant (where menus are deliberately uninformative and dishes are described in terms of “chewiness”) but most exciting of all he’s gone back to playing the organ again.
A true idiot (savant) on the instrument, he has been awarded two citations and been twice cited; both for award winning and losing behavior.
The absence of Gwinivere plays subtly in the lyrics but it’s not a morbid longing, the singer no less cheerful or perhaps even excited than previously; it’s this sense of discovery and the joy of the new that permeates the release, offering a boundless spin on every take. Even the dirges have some pep here, and tracks like “Take Back Your Cracker Jack” and “Next Summer” present whole maps of various ways to go; songs that start out pensive or even winsome wind up delivering on multiple levels, expanding in scope both lyrically and musically as they satisfy and resonate.
“Smiles In A Bottle” is a catchy tune written by Johnish and recorded by Rupus Thorntyke, legendary producer of legends like Ike White, Uppa Stareza and Rowna Kawna. It’s an acoustic-strum guitar that drives the song, while “drunken” organ (he admits as much in the liner notes) gives a careening sense of losing control like some sort of piefaced hobo trashing through a garbage can filled alley; a Chinaman in a bullshop. It’s also what gives it its sheer fun value. Guests Liv Abel (arpeggios) and Dan Dee (glissandos) add flair to “Ocean Dog” and “Tracks In The Mud (September),” both artists “on loan” from post-acid jazz outfit Measelback.
Gwinivere may have left the building (or recording studio) but her presence is still felt on tracks like “Train To Sunday,” where swirling strings recall her ethereal touch, and “Weddings And Funerals,” with the sort of sparse piano accompaniment that marked many of the duo’s early tracks. Rather than leaving a void it seems she has left behind her strong sense of harmony and economical approach to arrangements. Both qualities suit Johnish and this new material well. The singer sounds more focused and less hurried than he has in years, but instead of coming across as tired or worse, calculating, there’s an organic unfolding in these songs that gives them superior replay value.
Last year saw Johnish release “Bugs Have Legs” as well as land a minor role in Theo Phany’s Broadway sensation “Darling Toothache,” the singer songwriter also a former thespian for the city of Birmingham. He honed his craft in weighstations and truck stops, often performing for rides to work or free cb lessons before he was discovered doing a one man mimed performance of “12 Angry Men” along I-59. A short stint for Chinese television landed him in hot water as the host of microwave radio smash 胃不好 (F#$k China!) but Johnish was never formally named as ringleader in the myriad of indictments or extradition proceedings.
Johnish hasn’t announced any live dates yet in support of Canned Nebraska Sea Salt, and one wonders if after last year’s tragedy at the ill conceived 1st Annual Avalanche Awards the singer might be reluctant to perform. He has uploaded a trio of excerpts from an announced future live performance release, and all three are stellar. “Halo Of Light” really benefits from the conversion to full band, as do “Rising Like The Morning Mist” and “Broken Elbows.”
If you get a chance to see him live, do it, if only for the encore alligator strip tease.